If you’re in a writers’ group, chances are that you’ve entered competitions. Once your entry has disappeared into post box or cyberspace, it will be jostling for attention amongst all the other entries.
In ‘Death by Art Deco’, a short story by Shena Mackay, a published writer regrets having agreed to judge a short story competition. Her attitude to the entries is shown by her knocking a glass of red wine over one story and not being able to read another because it’s covered with her cat’s muddy paw prints. She chooses the winner only because, despite using the word faux thirteen times, the writer has invented an unlikely plot line which involves murder by means of a rare Amazonian venom being injected into pearl cufflinks – faux, of course.
But most people asked to judge a writing competition are much more conscientious and recognise the hard work that has gone into the entries. This was certainly how I felt when judging a recent short story competition. I discovered some very good writing, some outstanding writing but also writing that didn’t do justice to the talent of the author.
So, how can you maximise your story’s chances?
1. Read the rules. The competition I judged asked for entries to be written in the first person. The one story written in the third person had to be disqualified despite being creative and well-crafted.
2. Think carefully about your title. It has two jobs to do – intriguing the judge and suggesting the story’s theme. Something bland like ‘A Trip to the Seaside’ won’t fare as well as ‘Mermaids Deserve Favours’.
3. Having made it over the title hurdle, the story’s first paragraph has the most difficult task of all – making the reader want to read on. Sadly, descriptions of weather, setting, or explanations of how the character came to be on the page don’t do that, however beautifully written. Grabbing the reader with a credible character in conflict does.
4. We all know about those seven basic plots and how everything has been done before, so coming up with an original plot-line is not easy. What is original is you, the only person to see the world through your eyes. You may have a phobia about snakes. Turning that on its head and writing in the viewpoint of a snake with human-phobia will get your story noticed.
5. The ‘show don’t tell’ rule is carved on our writing hearts though it’s not always easy to follow it. Dialogue is a wonderful help here. Instead of explaining that the protagonist, despite being forty-five years old, is still under his mother’s influence [telling] write a conversation between the two of them where she obliterates his opinions with her own [showing].
Dialogue does another job too: it breaks up the page and makes the reading easier on the reader’s eyes, a small but important point when the judge has many scripts to read.
6. Make the judge laugh. After reading story after story full of angst, self-doubt and keeping a cruel world at bay, a witty story is a wonderful relief. There were three outstanding stories in the entries I judged, each of them worthy of winning first prize, each of them fulfilling all the criteria I’d decided were important. The one I chose was funny, full of black humour that really appealed to me.
That’s what we’re all up against when we enter competitions – the subjective preference of the judges. We can’t do anything about that but I hope my thoughts on my own experience of being a judge, will help you give your own stories a fighting chance of success.